For Jermaine Gresham 2014 will be a turning point year one way or another. The 26 year old tight end has been a solid contributor for the team since being drafted in 2010. His receiving numbers only improved across his first three years in the league while the team continued adding offensive weapons. His numbers dropped off last year, which was only in part his fault as the team has looked to spread the ball around more and added another first round tight end in Tyler Eifert. His responsibility for the decline comes in the form of mental errors; the one aspect of his game that has kept Gresham from becoming one of the elite tight ends in the NFL. It’s because of these errors that Gresham’s future as a Bengal remains murky going into his contract year.
There’s no debating that when it comes to the receiving portion of his game, Gresham is amongst the best in the NFL. At 6’5″, 260 lbs, most tight ends would love to have his size, strength, and speed combination. He runs great routes and presents a big target for Andy Dalton. His athleticism and strength allows him to create yards after the catch producing gains that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. His statistics climaxed in 2012 when he posted 64 catches on 94 targets for 737 yards and 5 TDs. He produced a career best 33 first downs that year also.
A caveat to those stats, Gresham, for the second straight year, committed the most penalties in the NFL amongst tight ends. More than that, his 11 total penalties was only one behind the NFL leader. His 85 yards in penalties ranked 19th in the NFL with mostly cornerbacks ahead of him; corners can rack up yards quick with one pass interference on a deep throw, for example. Amongst his 11 penalties in 2013 were five holding calls and four false starts. He even needed to be sent to the locker room to “clear his head,” during the Lions game after swatting away an official’s hand during an altercation with Willie Young; this resulted in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. In 2012 he had another six holding calls and three false starts which encompassed his nine penalties and cost the team 75 yards for the year. In 2011 and 2010 he had six (five false starts) and four (two holding, two false start) penalties respectively. This is a concerning trend for the Bengals staff as it seems that increased playing time hasn’t resulted in increased discipline. Penalties often stop drives and stall momentum; they’re simply inexcusable from a veteran like Gresham.
These penalties, along with his career high drop percentage (7.5%) in 2012 probably contributed to the team drafting Tyler Eifert in 2013. He addressed his drops this past year by posting the lowest percentage of his career (4.5%). This was a step towards resolving his mental errors, but as his penalty woes have only become worse, faith in him may be waning. With the offense moving towards a run-heavy approach, it will be even more vital that Gresham refines his blocking skills to avoid these holding penalties.
It showed real maturity and accountability when Gresham addressed his faults by speaking about “not deserving an extension” last year, but after expressing that he felt he “cost” the team its playoff game in 2012 due to a dropped pass, it seems the drops are the only part of his transgressions that he’s addressed. Gresham will be playing out his contract year in 2014. His cap hit will already be 11th amongst tight ends this year with all quality players ahead of him. If he’s looking for a raise, he may need to clean up his penalties and refocus on the finer points of the game. His receiving ability will still be vital to this offense, and as tight ends are more in vogue currently, the team will want to retain him. That being said, the Bengals expect to be “great,”according to Giovani Bernard, and nothing stops that effort like foolish mental errors. When playing on such a deep roster, these types of mistakes can land a player on the bench quickly. Worse, with an excess of draft picks yet again in 2015, it’s conceivable the Bengals could find themselves selecting yet another tight end.
Personally I like Gresham and will be hoping for improvement. Hopefully he will recover quickly and have no further injuries after having hernia surgery this off-season. Assuming his retention won’t cost much past his 2014 salary, $4.832 million, and an improvement in his game, I’ll support the Bengals resigning him. But if these mental mistakes continue within an offense loaded with playmakers, there wouldn’t be much of an argument to retain his services.